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4.11.13

Emotional biases toward nuclear power

It's never a good rhetorical strategy to talk about how important it is to make decisions on the basis of reason and facts rather than biases and (excessive) emotion. Certainly we should be making our decisions based on reason rather than biases -- but at this level of generality, everyone already agrees. The real question is always what decision is supported by reason and what decision is supported only by bias.

Consider, for example, a letter recently sent by four prominent climate scientists to a variety of organizations urging them to endorse nuclear power as a solution to climate change. They write:

We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

The letter cites a number of empirical claims supporting the advantages of nuclear power. But the fact is, it's easy enough to imagine emotional biases in favor of nuclear power as well as those against it. Advocacy of nuclear power has become a powerful symbol of "reasonableness" in the modern environmental debate. Saying "we should build more nuclear plants to stop climate change" is a good way of sending the message "I care about the environment, but I'm not one of those crazy hippies that wants us all to live in back-to-the-land eco-communes!" This symbolic power is in part a function of the practical reality of nuclear power. Of all of the options out there for replacing fossil fuels, nuclear power comes the closest to maintaining the status quo of a mass-scale, high-tech, high-consumption society. This connection is surely a source of bias toward nuclear power on the part of those with an emotional attachment to our current way of life. The fact that nuclear power has for so long been a target of environmental protest, and is linked to the rise of 1960s radicalism, only enhances the emotional significance of the green nuke position.

My point is not that the authors of the letter are acting out of emotional bias. Rather, it's that there is ample potential for bias on both side of the debate, and so singing the praises of rational and unbiased decision-making in the abstract is unlikely to get us far.

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